“I thought he was just aloof. From that moment, I thought, nah, you’re an a******e.”Tony Porter, actor, after Harris patronised him during filming“It’s very rare that a person can be such a celebrity that...even their Christian name alone will signal them to the whole world.”- Dr. Joe St. John, Author and Lawyer
In 1953, just one year after arriving in the UK, Rolf found fame on BBC children’s TV. One of his creations that helped him stand out was Willoughby, a cheeky Cockney kid who came to life as he was drawn.For the next few years, Rolf was in demand by the both the BBC and, unusually for back then, commercial TV – normally stars worked for one side or the other, but children’s entertainment was seen as less competitive.
In 1958, he married Alwen. It would be a long marriage. Rolf later said he regretted how little time he gave to her. He said that she later contemplated suicide partly because of the boredom of being married to a workaholic who was rarely there.In 1960, he had a hit with his first novelty single, a jokey Australian folk song called ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport’. Rolf said he offered the backing band royalties or a flat fee. Assuming it would flop, the four musicians took their £28 flat fee. Within four weeks, it was a number one hit.
Harris would later apologise for the racist reference in the song saying it came from a more innocent age. He would later attempt a similar defence when accused of other offencesIn 1961, he took a new song, ‘Sun Arise’ to the man who would produce the Beatles, George Martin. George told Rolf his song was boring. But it was notable for featuring aboriginal sounds and the wobble board, an ‘instrument’ Rolf would make his trademark.And onscreen, he coined a new catchphrase for when he was painting...“Can you tell what it is yet?”
During the 1960s, Rolf hosted a string of TV shows including ‘Hi There!’ and ‘Hey Presto It’s Rolf!’.In 1964, he had his only child, Bindi. She will find that her father will give more attention to ‘a strange girl on the street than...to his own daughter.’‘The Rolf Harris Show’At 37, Rolf had his own show.The following year, he received an MBE.His next single was huge. ‘Two Little Boys’ – an old music hall number about childhood friends sent to war – becomes 1969’s Christmas number one.‘Rolf on Saturday, OK?’The next year, the BBC launches a Saturday teatime variety show centred around Rolf.
In 1977, he was made an OBE at Buckingham Palace. His wife and daughter accompany him. His ‘Cartoon Time’ children’s show was in the BBC One schedules for a decade until 1989 and then ITV gave him another four years after that.
“I knew him growing up – Rolf Harris’ Cartoon Time, Rolf Harris on Saturday...He was on telly the whole time”- Nick Pisa Journalist
TV would make him so ubiquitous that at one point, he was the most recognised painter in the country, ahead of Rembrandt and Van Gogh.“He’s always been a warm and friendly presence in everybody’s household. He’s always been there.”- Patrick Carlyon, Senior Journalist, Melbourne Herald Sun
But when ITV cancelled his show, Rolf was diagnosed with clinical depression.He feared his career was finished.
However, he appeared at Glastonbury in 1993 with his cover of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven and he would go on to feature on the festival’s billing four more times.And the BBC came to his rescue by having him host a one off show about animal welfare.‘Animal Hospital’ was a surprise hit. Over the next decade, there was 19 series.In 2002, while writing his autobiography, the star stated he had realised his pursuit of fame had adversely affected his ability to be a husband and a father. This realisation – which helped publicise his new book – didn’t stop him hosting new art programmes such as ‘Star Portraits with Rolf Harris’ and ‘Rolf on Art’.
In 2005, the BBC commissioned him to paint a portrait of the Queen. It was nearly universally criticised. Rolf took the attacks very personally. But it doesn’t stop his canvasses being snapped up for six-figure sums. He was made a CBE.In 2012, the man who thought he was finished in TV received its highest honour - a BAFTA Fellowship. The cream of British entertainment gave a standing ovation and cheered him on as he mounted the stage. He told them how his grandfather had always said there was no money in painting and drawing but Harris had made a career of it. But as much as he’s loved from afar by the public, some of those who worked with the man were left with a different impression.
When fellow performer Tony Porter amused a TV audience in between takes, Rolf – who had previously barely said a word to Tony, said to him, “I’ll do the funny stuff, mate”...“...Until that moment, I thought he was just aloof. From that moment, I thought, nah, you’re an a******e.”